After the extensive media coverage received, there is no need to recap the events of 28th March 2022, when Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock out of anger at the latter’s belittling jokes about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaven head caused by alopecia-induced hair loss at the Oscars.
Very few Hollywood incidents have received this amount of international attention, from outraged op-eds to the footage playing on a loop. The words that seem to resurface the most describe “shock” and “surprise” at what happened. And yet, on the day, the slap was followed by silence and inaction; the general feeling of discomfort did not stop the show from continuing on as planned. Similarly, that incident was widely condemned but it has not stopped many individuals and even companies from producing memes or making jokes about the assault to capitalise on potential publicity — as if the impact on assault victims and the backlash don’t matter, and that this is somehow a laughing matter.
Simply put, toxic masculinity is the cultural pressure for boys and men to behave in a certain — “manly” — way. The idea of “manliness” in question is one that perpetuates domination, homophobia, sexism, and aggression. On the other hand, it also equates masculinity with a lack of emotion and the appearance of complete invulnerability. Steeped in old gender roles of women as “emotional” and men as “tough”, this translates into perpetual encouragement to repress one’s feelings until they fester and break out by the one acceptable and expected means: violence.
Patriarchal roles follow familiar narratives of protective, strong men and soft, nurturing women. In this script, Will Smith was cast as the protector; when Jada opened up, a few days after the incident, to state that it was now “a season for healing,” she slid into the role of the carer, providing the support needed by the man who used violence in her name. Indeed, as many noted, she was more than capable of defending herself and had an opportunity to raise awareness or speak up for herself in a way of her choice taken away from her.
Heated debates about what it means to “protect women” only betray our society’s comfort with male violence and female victims which serve no one. The narrative of Will Smith defending his wife is a seducing one, especially as we consider the history of Chris Rock’s repeated teasing and belittling of Jada Pinkett Smith all the way since the 1990s. However, living in a world where many men are unable to communicate their emotions results in a society too ready to cast experiences of violence into the mould of heroism.
The prevalent idea that “love makes you do crazy things” is blinding us from a conversation about men’s anger and the harm it is doing to them just as much as their loved ones. The emotional state that would push someone to resort to violence in their workplace and the absence of other avenues for healing and dialogue is a sign of our society’s inability to provide mental health care to all and to rid itself of harmful behavioural expectations for all genders.
While our society has grown more rigorous with punishing violence, toxic masculinity would state that there are some instances when it can be okay, because it falls into narratives of defending helpless women. This creates a familiarity with gender relations being seeped in physical anger, a leniency to violence as an alternative to communication that is endangering many of its victims. In England, three-quarters of all domestic abuse cases are closed early without the suspect being charged, while only 1.6% of rape allegations result in someone being charged.
The lack of tools and resources to combat toxic ideas of what it means to be a man is harming everyone, including men themselves. The public outrage against Will Smith and his resignation from the Academy are only the top of the iceberg; the real worry is the lack of avenues for men and young boys, men of colour, and those from already marginalised communities to express their feelings and be given tools to exteriorise them that don’t include resorting to violence.
Having zero tolerance towards men’s violence is of course one thing. But, we need a much deeper look at men’s mental health and how the most vulnerable are deeply affected by the pressure of stereotypes they must mould themselves into, if we hope to end violence against women and girls. This is especially true in marginalised communities, who are most at risk of facing violence and have little access to support or remedy. At JAN Trust, we see it as vitally important to raise awareness of harmful stereotypes in our fight against violence against women and to show that all people have equal worth — and should have equal power.